By mid August, 1955, the rivers were running high in the Litchfield Hills. Hurricane Connie had just pounded the eastern seaboard for 11 days, dumping torrential rains on southern New England before the storm passed inland. After 6 inches of rain, the valley of the Naugatuck, once the region's industrial heart and still its population center, saw its streams and rivers rise to flood stage. The saturated ground and steep sided hills were unable to absorb more precipitation, yet worse was to come. Hurricane Diane struck coastal New England less than a week after Connie, bringing on the worst flooding in the Connecticut's history.
Although it ravished communities from the Carolinas to New Hampshire, the communities of the Naugatuck Valley in the Litchfield Hills were among the hardest hit by The Great Flood of 1955. 14 inches of rain fell in the headwaters of the Naugatuck and Farmington Rivers in little more than a day. The Mad River in Winchester and the Still River in Torrington, two tributaries of the Farmington, tore out the hearts of those municipalities on August 19th, leaving their downtown's devastated and killing scores of people. The Hartford Courant did a 50th anniversary feature last year that includes extraordinary film footage of the catastrophe, including video of an apartment house carried away on the flood waters. The Connecticut State Library archives include harrowing images of the storm damage that echo recent images of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in urban New Orleans.
Hurricane Diane was the sixth costliest tropical storm in the 20th century, with more than $852 million dollars in damages, or the equivalent of 7 billion in today's dollars. The regional impacts of the floods have been long lasting. Winsted and Torrington, already declining industrial towns when the storm hit, have never fully recovered from its destruction, and although Winsted has put considerable effort into revitalizing its downtown in recent years it is far different from the way the town looked prior to the flood.
The storm completely isolated large portions of the region, washing out roads and bridges as well as more substantial buildings and infrastructure. A massive investment in flood control by the Army Corps of Engineers in subsequent decades created a series of new impoundments in the Farmington and Naugatuck river basins that have arguably saved many lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in property, but also affected stream connectivity and created new barriers for fish passage in an already impaired watershed.
Perhaps even more significant, the shattered transportation infrastructure of the Litchfield Hills kept the region remote and isolated while the new Interstate Highway system stayed coastal and followed the Connecticut River Valley. The real estate development and sprawl of the 1960s and 1970s largely spared the Litchfield Hills, even as the local economy stagnated. Large areas remained open and undeveloped here for decades longer than they might have otherwise as a result of the floods.
Today, the storms of 1955 are a distant memory. Many residents today were just children when they witnessed the storm. The real estate and housing market continues to expand in the Litchfield Hills. Torrington actually has the largest so-called ""micropolitan" area in the nation, with a city core of about 36,000 people but affecting a regional area with a population over 180,000. Efforts are underway to restore fish passage at some of the dams on the Naugatuck, while flood control areas are viewed as potential greenways and recreational open space. Far more people live in this area today who did not experience the floods than those who can still recall the day when the rivers came down in fury.